Sunday, September 13, 2015

From Goodelland to Trumpistan

Fittingly, the NFL season kicked off on Thursday night in Foxborough, home of the New England Patriots. Not so much because it featured the defending Super Bowl champions but because a national audience watched Tom Brady celebrate his victory over NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as he first fist-pumped triumphantly onto the stage and then masterfully led his team to victory in front of fans celebrating his courtroom win every bit as much as his on-field exploits, waving signs demanding Goodell's dismissal and chanting "Where is Roger?".

Watching the scene an ocean and most of a continent away here in Poland it was hard to tell whether it was the sleep deprivation or the driving rain that made the whole scene seem so surreal. For the past decade plus, football has been my firmest link to the comings and goings back home in North America, but it seems as though even this tether is becoming frayed as the events that played out in a courtroom in a case that involved under-inflated balls were more important in determining the outcome of Thursday night's game than anything else. Even more amazingly, Deflategate has managed to distract a nation's interest from more serious issues that should make an NFL fan uncomfortable. Take your pick: CTE, violence against women and children, PEDs, wasting public money on private stadiums, being paid to promote war, or pretending to raise money for breast cancer by wearing pink gloves and shoes.

Adding to the hypnagogic effect was the fact the results on the field have become less important than those flashing across computer, tablet and phone screens around the world. Once a nerdy pastime for statistical fanatics, over the past decade fantasy football has transmogrified from a man cave event into a watercooler conversation, a sitcom, an obsession, and finally into a money-making bonanza. Every commercial break featured at least one ad luring the gullible into believing they can beat the system and win millions. Money for nothing but picking players, except it's not nothing, it's just gambling, and the house always wins.

The disconnect between perception and reality has never been so stark. I know it's time and distance blurring the edges, but could it really be that America might elect Donald Trump president? My time over here saw George Bush Junior named president by the Supreme Court while I was sampling tapas in Madrid, somehow re-elected during my palinka period in Hungary, while Barack Obama entered the White House and has remained there the whole time I've been living in Poland. Dopey was replaced by Hopey-Changey so why not Fuckface von Clownstick next? Much as Goodell has taken a league that seemingly couldn't be destroyed but is doing just that, America has given a country that was so far ahead of the rest to a bunch of charlatans intent on running it into the ditch.

Twin towers were toppled leading to a perpetual war on terror to fight ever mutating enemies being created to justify locking up and torturing potential terrorists abroad and trampling civil liberties at home. To aid the cause Americans were told to go shopping which seemed to work until their credit cards were rejected at Wal-Mart leading to a financial crisis caused by the yawning gap in wealth. Crackberries have risen and fallen making way for iPhones and Androids used to snap selfies to fill the gaps in everyone's TwitoogleBook feeds between news about Kardashians, Brangelina, Bennifer, TomKat and Kimye.

The response to each disaster is inevitably to make it worse by throwing gas on the fire. Now, you could spend all day walking the streets of Poznan asking people if they've heard of Roger Goodell and never get an affirmative answer yet you'll inevitably come across some joker wearing a Raiders jacket or Patriots cap as American culture still seeps abroad. The name Donald Trump will illicit equally blank stares but you'll pass a half a dozen pawn shops which are multiplying thanks to the brand of crony capitalism that the Trumps of the world have created.

So, even though it's getting steadily easier to predict the winners and losers of an economic system rigged in favor of the rich, when it comes to predicting an NFL season winners, football is the ultimate crapshoot, a 16 game schedule to determine the best of 32 teams never has a chance of being true. In any case, let's give it a shot.

NFC East: Cowboys - Eagles - Giants - Washington football team

Dallas manages to cobble together a backfield just capable enough to run through the mammoth holes created by their offensive line. Dez leads the team in TDs but little Cole Beasley leads the team in receptions and the defense once again somehow manages to avoid being the worst in the league. Chip's Eagles set an NFL record for plays run, the three-headed backfield of DeMarco Murray, Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles combine for 2,500 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving but Sam Bradford can't stay healthy and the defense dies of exhaustion. Odell Beckham Jr. isn't able to carry the G-men past 7-9 while the league is forced to take over the Washington football team after the circus comes to town and switches places with the front office. Goodell unilaterally renames them the Griffins and names RGIII the starting quarterback for the rest of the year despite only having masking tape holding his knee together.

NFC North: Packers - Vikings - Lions - Bears (Oh my!)

Aaron Rogers is like, whatever, Jordy Nelson is out, RELAX, but Green Bay still comes back a bit to the, er, pack as they can't go 5-0 in one score games again. The resurgent Vikings have Adrian Peterson back to take some of the pressure off second year QB Teddy Bridgewater who becomes a top 12 signal caller thanks to targets such as Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace. The Lions make a late season surge thanks to the lethal WR Golden Megatron combo and the rookie Abdullah taking over as bell-cow back but the defense minus Suh isn't as dominate. Meanwhile the Bears are forced to bench Cutler midseason after a 1-7 start and go with Jimmy Clausen. Ugh!

NFC South: Panthers - Saints - Falcons - Bucs

The once mighty south has turned into a quagmire, each team has a glaring weakness that should preclude them from taking the division, yet someone has to so I'm making it the Panthers, last year's champs, by default. The defense carries the team who manage to put up 9 ugly wins despite Cam Newton failing to throw a TD to a wide receiver all year a la 2014 Alex Smith. Drew Brees throws for over 5,000 yards again but it's because the defense has too many new parts and question marks to effectively stop anyone, even the Panthers, forcing him to throw, throw, throw. Ditto for the Falcons as Julio Jones puts up an insane 2,000 yard year but new head coach Dan Quinn doesn't have the defensive talent to do what he was able to in Seattle. Despite across the board improvement and a shiny new #1 pick QB named Jameis Winston, I won't be suckered into picking the Bucs any higher than last again this year.

NFC West: Seahawks - Rams - Cardinals - 49ers

The headache the Seahawks wake up with from their Super Bowl hangover won't be bad enough to stop them from taking the west as Russell Wilson picked up a few new toys in the form of Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett, and the defense, even minus holdout Kam Chancellor will still be good enough. Both the Rams and Cardinals will have improved quarterback play, remember St. Louis ran out Shaun Hill and Austin Davis for half a season each while Arizona was forced into starting the likes of Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley for more than half a season and the playoffs, but there's no guarantee Nick Foles or Carson Palmer remain any healthier this season, and no, Nick Foles isn't great as it is. However, the Rams defense carries them to a .500 record while the Cardinals finally lose a few close games. Meanwhile in San Fran, er, Santa Clara, the 49ers languish in the basement for the first of a few seasons.

Wild Card Weekend - Vikings beat the Panthers, Packers beat the Eagles

Divisional Round - Seahawks over Vikings, Cowboys over Packers

Conference Championship - Cowboys beat the Seahawks

That's right, we're talking about a deluded fantasy world so I'm taking the Cowboys. Off the field, the league will be engaged in a public relations battle for its life as the movie 'Concussion' will have been released Christmas Day across the nation. Those willing to listen will once again learn how those in power suppress the truth and keep the masses ignorant. In this case though, star power in the form of Will Smith will tell the story of how the NFL used the playbook of the powerful to delegitimize the research of a Nigerian-born scientist who discovered how deadly multiple blows to the head can be as they lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In our mixed up dystopian world whistleblowers and those who tell the truth are usually the ones who wind up demonized and destroyed instead of the truly wicked that they attempt to expose.

The off week between the conference championship and the Super Bowl in 2016 will feature the Iowa Caucus where we'll get the first real returns on who'll be running for president later in the year. Thanks to his lavish spending, Trump's campaign fund holding company will be forced to declare bankruptcy, making it the fifth such time a Trump company has done so. Thanks to the whole disconnect with reality thing, Greece will be forced to auction off its antiquity to avoid such a move but Trump's declaration will catapult him into the lead for the Republican nomination as he is able to cast himself as a victim of the system to the undecided voters. Because somehow it's a shrewd, calculated business move for a billionaire to screw his creditors but it's a moral hazard to free an entire nation from the thumbscrews of banksters.

Adding to the confusion for any non-American observer of the US presidential primaries will be the mass of people constantly surrounding a dowdy looking woman who isn't even running for office but whose name is constantly evoked by candidates looking to woo the religious fundamentalist vote, Kim Davis. Another name that no European recognizes, her face has been flashed on screens across America for months, often accompanied by 'Eye of the Tiger' as she's portrayed as a fighter for refusing to do the job she was elected to do because of her religious beliefs. Her supporters of course look upon Muslim immigrants with fear believing that they will bring and somehow impose Sharia law on the nation while championing a woman who refuses to follow a secular law because of what a 2,000 year old book supposedly tells her to believe. Yes, in their world religious beliefs should take precedence over national laws so long as it is their space fairy's beliefs that we are talking about.

Meanwhile, if the AFC...

AFC East: Patriots - Dolphins - Jets - Bills

Cheaters or not, Brady's Pats still rule the east, Gronk scores 15 TDs, no RB goes over 1,000 yards for the season but three different ones have 100-yard games while the defense bends but doesn't break. The Dolphins are improved again, QB Ryan Tannehill has targets galore and the defense should be stout enough to carry them to a wildcard bid. The New York football Jets won't score many points but they won't give up many either putting them on target for a .500 season. Look, the Bills defense almost can't be as good as last year, while the offense is reliant on an unknown quarterback to play better than Kyle Orton. While the rest of the league moves towards treating running backs as a replaceable part, the Bills gave away the store to pick up erstwhile injury prone LeSean McCoy after having done the same to pick up Sammy Watkins and EJ Manuel without doing anything to allow them to thrive.

AFC North: Ravens - Bengals - Steelers - Browns

Trestman was brought in to rev up a Raven offense that set a team record for points last year, but who will Joe throw to when Steve Smith Sr. is forced into a wheelchair by mid-season. So Forsett needs to have another amazing season to go with the usual stout Baltimore defense for the team to fulfill expectations. The Bengals have become the most boring slightly above average team in the league despite have superstars at wide out, AJ Green now locked up to long term contract, and in the backfield, 2nd year guy Jeremy Hill led the league in rushing over the final 9 games of the season. The defense looks great on paper too but Andy Dalton simply isn't an elite QB. The Steelers have become bizarro-world Pittsburgh with the most exciting offense in football led by perhaps the best RB and WR in the league, LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown, but their defense is porous and one of the worst in the league. Shootouts galore. Sure, the Browns pass defense will be pretty good again but why would anyone need to get away from the run when the Cleveland offense can't put any points on the board. Johnny Manziel?

AFC South: Colts - Texans - Jaguars - Titans

The Colts want to win the Super Bowl. Now. They brought in golden oldies Frank Gore to lug the rock and Andre Johnson to catch it as well as drafting Phillip Dorsett to compete for targets. Luck's offense is loaded and keep in mind that in his first season, Indy reached the Wild-Card round; in his second, the Divisional Round; last year, his third season, the AFC Championship; following this pattern, Luck's a lock to reach the Super Bowl this year. The Texans may take a step back but smaller than the step forward the Jags take. Brian Hoyer leads an Adrian Foster-and-Andre Johnson-less team that will rely on a JJ Watt-led defense more than ever to win games. This season marks a high point in Jaguar optimism coming off a not-so-horrible rookie season from QB Blake Bortles. If rookie RB TJ Yeldon steps up along with emerging WR Allen Robinson and newly acquired TE Julius Thomas can get and remain healthy, their offense may be respectable next to a defense that seems set to be. Meanwhile, Tennessee should suffer the growing pains that accompany rookie QBs as Marcus Mariotta struggles to find his footing on a team bereft of superstars.

AFC West: Chiefs - Broncos - Chargers - Raiders

Seemingly the most interesting division in football sees the Chiefs overcome a fading Broncos team down the stretch in December. Alex Smith finally throws a touchdown to a wide receiver, most likely newcomer Jeremy Maclin, and Jamaal Charles stays healthy all year to lead the league in rushing. The Broncos offensive line isn't good enough to keep Peyton Manning healthy all year or CJ Anderson as the lead running back. Despite having a better defense than the Chiefs, the two teams swap identities from the end of last season and it is the Broncos who lose a few games they should have won. The Chargers may even pass Denver as they have upgraded the running game with shiny first round rookie Melvin Gordon and a healthy Danny Woodhead so long as the rest of the team can stay healthy; the Chargers trailed only the Giants in Adjusted Games Lost to injury last season. And the Raiders aren't the worst team in football, in fact, they may even be exciting to watch at times with ROY candidate Amari Cooper snagging passes from Derek Carr, Latavius Murray running wild and offensive and defensive lines that have been built big. But, they are still the Raiders.

Wild Card Weekend - Ravens beat the Broncos, Dolphins beat the Chiefs

Divisional Round - Colts over the Dolphins, Ravens over the Patriots

Conference Championship - Colts beat the Ravens

Super Bowl 50 - Dallas Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts

Yes, it's Super Bowl V repeating itself in Super Bowl 50. This time won't finish 16-13 either as points a plenty should be thrown on the board in Santa Clara, a seemingly apposite locale to celebrate the golden anniversary. See it's in Silicon Valley, and in fact just nine miles up the road from Apple's headquarters. Although Hollywood ran out of novel ways to distract the American public from the evil doings of her leaders, be they military, economic or judicial, the computer industry has more than filled the void. Thanks to our screen addictions, if Simon and Garfunkel were around today they wouldn't sing 'Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes', but instead 'Look around you all you see are apathetic eyes', er, well, if eyes can be apathetic I guess, but you get the point. We get the leaders we deserve and a people who can be fooled into believing bombing innocent people is a more effective peacekeeping tactic than signing peace treaties deserves to live in Trumpistan, cut off from the rest of the world by a 20-foot wall. If only it will do a better job of keeping the stupid in than keeping the immigrants out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Neoliberal Neocon Lovechild

There I was on Sunday skimming the latest from the New York Times when my eyes alighted upon the headline Poland Steels for Battle, Seeing Echoes of Cold War in Ukraine Crisis accompanied by, what else, a picture of camouflaged women crawling on what appeared to be a soccer field. Curiosity about what my hitherto believed to be apathetic hosts were up to naturally drew me in. Now, living in Poland has accustomed me to western exaggeration about my adopted country along with the natives inability to think rationally any time the word Russia is mentioned. History has scarred the land and imagination every bit as badly as religion and in fact created what the Times once called the Smolensk Religion which propagates the belief that the Russians assassinated Polish President Kaczyński along with 96 others on their way to mark the anniversary of the Katyń massacre. Anyway, the article had me chortling at its transparent cheerleading for war, just another Times propaganda piece pushing for armed conflict a la Iraq 2003, when my snickering was stifled by the sobering reality of this passage:
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz changed the law on who can be called up for service in case of “military maneuvers.” Previously, the armed forces could summon only current and former reservists, those with actual military training. Now, if necessary, they can call on almost any man in the country.
Wait. What? We've got a female prime minister? Ok, I knew that, but I didn't know she could call me up tomorrow to go running around the forest with a bunch of wannabe Rambos. Clearly the Anne Applebaums, Tom Friedmans and whoever the Polish version of a pro-war journalist is have pushed us too far, frogmarching us into another conflict. I've been reticent to comment on the situation in Ukraine for many reasons. First and foremost is how difficult it seems to get any reliable information, regardless of where you are. While back in Canada last summer I was treated to a constant Ukrainian-voter friendly barrage of tough talking politicians pandering to the public's bloodlust and the resultant steady stream of questions from friends and relatives concerned about my safety. Strangely, proximity to the happenings doesn't seem to help and in fact may hinder the truth from surfacing. While there's not a Russian or 'western' source I trust, the situation here in Poland is even worse. Despite Poles geographical contiguity to the festivities, there's nary a soul I've spoken to over the past year here with any idea of what's going on beyond the knee-jerk Putin is bad reaction. That's not to say that I've got it all sussed out, but let's just say I've reserved judgement on putting the good guy/bad guy labels anywhere.

Wait, check that, I do have a clue where to start at least, and as is so often the case, the clue comes from a headline from last week that's just a little bit off:

Ukraine to receive $17.5bn from IMF to save economy

Um, yeah, right. Here, let me try:

Ukraine to receive $17.5bn from IMF to enslave economy

There, fixed it. Just three letters short of the truth, a lot better than normal at least. It's amazing that even complex stories can be simplified if you just follow the money. If the press just spent a fraction of the time focusing on who stands to gain and lose financially as they do speculating about just how demonic/autistic/autocratic/narcissistic Vladimir Putin is, they'd begin to fulfil their role as a check on power. Of course if they did that they might also have to remind their flock why things kicked off in Kiev almost 16 months ago which might lead to uncomfortable questions taking shape in people's minds, so best to nip that in the bud.
"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting"
- Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
November 21, 2013, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet announced they wouldn't be signing an EU association agreement the following week in Lithuania. That's about the last fact that we know; pretty much everything else, from the reasons for the decision to the repercussions of it, are subject to debate. That being the case, wouldn't it seem natural to want to know something about the agreement? Yet, little was said beyond that not signing represented a move away from Europe towards Russia; true to a point, but misleading in more ways than one. Most obviously, the agreement didn't mean EU ascension, but instead a vague future possibility and came with a number of strings attached ranging from the release of Julia Tymoshenko to a slew of austerity demands such as budget cuts and a 40% increase in natural gas bills. It also tied Ukraine to accepting, wait for it, an IMF loan worth $17 billion that didn't look quite as alluring to Yanukovych, probably both personally and for the nation, as a $15 billion gift from Russia that came with a 33% discount on natural gas. Yes, we in the west spend billions bailing out banks and then lending money to indebted countries to keep up their interest payments to those same banks, but can't lend a hand to start a real democracy. Just as debt peonage works to enslave students entering adulthood so it does for nations in that it manufactures consent by engendering conformity and enforcing compliance.

(Un)fortunately, one of the first moves of the newly installed government following the unconstitutional coup last February was the signing of the once rejected deal allowing us a closer look at what else was inside the loan agreement. Despite decades of debacles, and dozens of disasters, the IMF prescription for reform demanded in exchange for loans remains the dreaded structural adjustment program. A few highlights of the neoliberal nightmare visited upon Ukraine: raising excise and property taxes, reducing social income support expenditures for retirees and public employees, freezing minimum wage, and cutting public-sector wages; increasing natural gas and heating tariffs for consumers by 56 percent and 40 percent in 2014, respectively, and by 20 to 40 percent annually from 2015 to 2017 while cutting gas subsidies over two years. At the same time, as gas prices increase sharply, gas subsidies to end users will be completely ended over the next two year at a time when Russia was ceasing gas supplies as a result of a payment dispute; oh, and implementing a floating exchange rate for its national currency, the hryvnia, making it increasingly difficult to serve their dollar-denominated loans.

(Un)surprisingly, everything has gone according to script. A world of pain for the poor and elderly has paid for a bonanza for the oligarchs and western puppeteers. The currency has tanked (the hryvnia lost half its value in February alone), inflation has reached 272% while the economy has sharply contracted (down 15.2% year on year) at a time when war expenses are further draining the coffers. Less than a year on from the original loan, a new one was needed and approved last Wednesday but even IMF official admit it's not for Ukraine but the banks, as the bulk of the money is heading out the door to foreign lenders fast: $5 billion likely by the end of this week and another $5 billion in coming months. The Ukrainian oligarch-controlled banks will also syphon off about $4 billion so they can keep financing the war in the east. Even more contumelious, the IMF's own statutes prohibit lending to countries that don't have the ability to repay as that would be, you know, evil. One can only admire the audacity to pull of such a stunt, especially with Greece fresh in our minds, seems evil really is as evil does, again and again and again. Worse, they're also prohibited from giving money to nations at war. Makes sense, seems you wouldn't want to be remembered by history as having financed a government unleashing Nazi storm troopers on a European population, right? Nevertheless, once again the economic hitmen have done there job:

"The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age."
- Gustave Le Bon The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind
While everyone was arguing about who was responsible for the sniper fire in Kiev that turned Maiden into a masacre, who shot down Flight MH17, whether or not Russia was justified in annexing Crimea and who killed Nemtsov, Ukraine gave up its sovereignty. We can debate how much of a role US Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria 'Fuck the EU' Nuland (neocon wife of neocon Robert Kagan) and her $5 billion played in fomenting the Maiden protests enabling her to put her man Yats (Arseniy Yatsenyuk) in the prime minister's office, or how much money George "give Ukraine $50 billion so I can have some" Soros and Pierre Omidyar pumped into USAID to help bring about regime change. Or, instead we could just notice how quickly the vice-president of the United States' son, Hunter Biden, was named to the board of Ukraine's largest private gas producer, Burisma Holdings, following the inauguration of the chocolate king, Petro Poroshenko, as Ukraine's president (weren't we supposed to disempower the oligarchs?). As long as there's shale gas to be fracked, you know the people's water table will be poisoned to profit American corporate interests.

We could spend our time arguing about how much of a role neo-nazis had in last year's coup, or better yet framing the openly white supremacist Ukrainian Azov battalion's use of the Wolfsangel symbol on their banner as "romantic" as the Washington Post does. That might explain away the Odessa massacre in which dozens of anti-Kiev protesters were burnt alive in a building set on fire by nationalists or clubbed to death when they jumped from windows. We could even wonder why former US presidential candidate and current senator John McCain met and stood alongside an openly pro-Nazi politician in December 2013. It's easier though to simply evaluate how well the new government has cleaned up the corruption that plagued the pro-Russian regime. President Poroshenko appointed former ING Bank Ukraine deputy head Valeriya Gontareva the National Bank (NBU) chief last June. As a respected member of the banking community, it was said she would inspire the confidence of the private sector and work closely with the IMF. Yet, according to charges brought against her in December, by August she was robbing the state by manipulating the currency. Ihor Bilous, another banker given the post of chief of the State Fiscal Service by the new government dove headlong into money laundering, bribery and corruption schemes from the get go. None if this makes for as good TV as corrupt presidential palaces though. Pity about all that Ukrainian gold.

Hypothesizing about why Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk would tell a German TV station that it was in fact the Soviet Union that invaded Germany in 1941 won't get us anywhere. Questioning Poland's deputy foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna's grasp on reality after crediting Ukrainians for liberating Auschwitz thus forgetting they only made up a part of the multinational Red Army history credits with the feat seems petty really. Poking the Russian bear is a spectator sport in these parts every bit as much as popular as ignoring the geopolitical reality that Frontline Ukraine author Richard Sakwa rightly calls a "fateful geographical paradox: that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence". Whether or not Bush the Elder promised Gorbachev that NATO wouldn't expand eastward following the dissolution of the USSR is irrelevant.

Actions speak louder than words and watching NATO swallow up 12 Eastern European countries in three rounds of enlargement would make any Russian leader nervous. Though portrayed as Putin's lapdog, Yanukovych extorted $45 billion from Russia to lease the Black Sea fleet bas in April 2010 causing Putin to exclaim "I would be willing to eat Yanukovych and his prime minister for that sort of money". Putin didn't even deign to meet him when he fled the Maiden protesters for Russia. It is in fact the Russian speaking public who voted for Yanukovych in 2010 in the contested east that Putin claims need protection, and many sources allege are the target of ethnic cleansing in order to guarantee a pro-western candidate wins the eventual next election in Ukraine. For those will to look beyond the tabloids and memes, much of the speculation surrounding Putin's 10-day public disappearing act concerned the powerful voices in the Kremlin who would like to see Russia take an active military role in Ukraine. Perhaps they're more sensitive to the sting of humiliation the west has heaped on the nation over the last 25 years, from the "shock therapy" pillaging of the economy to missile shields and NATO's promise of eventual membership to Ukraine in 2008. Yeah exactly what Russia fears about Ukraine's western pivot. Given the prospect of nuclear war, the old adage better the devil you know than the devil you don't seems more relevant than ever.

Stop me if you've heard this one, an American, a Lithuanian and a Georgian walk into a bar... No, it might sound like the set up for a joke, but it wouldn't be so funny if it were your country that had fast-tracked citizenship for the three in a bizarre ceremony making it legal to name them your Finance, Economy and Health ministers respectively just a few minutes later. The American, Natalie Jaresko, is a former US State Department official and investment banker with no experience with the convoluted Ukraine budget. Aivaras Abromavičius also unsurprisingly comes via the banking world with no previous experience while at least Aleksander Kvatashvili served in the same post in Tblisi, but unfortunately doesn't speak Ukrainian forcing meetings to be held in Russian, embarrassing given the first thing the new government did was to target the language by repealing the minority languages law. If this didn't give anyone pause, maybe when Abromavičius immediately named former Estonian Jaanika Merilo as his advisor on foreign investments did. No? Well, how about knowing the first thing she did in her new post was to tweet the pics you see above to the right?

At least Abromavičius was forthright about his country being bankrupt, declaring about the budget "[t]o expect that we are going to produce real as opposed to declarative incentive programs is unrealistic." Translation: the new Ukrainian budget is nothing but a piece of paper with the numbers wanted from the IMF in order to qualify for the loan. Again, Greece anyone? Seems to me that it's a bit counterproductive to incentivize corruption while claiming that the regime change was necessary to root it out. Oh, by law dual citizenship is not permitted for Ukrainian government officials, except when it is for, say the aforementioned trio or the oligarch governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who has three. Suppose that's what make him such a great banker, or more likely it's the fact that his bank, PrivatBank, that will be the biggest beneficiary of the IMF loan so he can continue to fund his private army fighting in eastern Ukraine. Throw in a few former warlords turned MPs such as Yuri Beryoza, Andrei Levus, assault rifle wielding Igor Mosiychuk (here he is shooting at Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's picture) and Dmytro Yarosh, who admitted to fondling a real hand grenade in his pocket while inside the Rada, and you might question if pulling Ukraine out of the Russian orbit has sure brought sunshine to the land.

Still no? Well, tell you what. We can ignore everything else except one word in one subsection of a single article in that EU agreement. Here's Article 404 (c);
promoting modern and sustainable agricultural production, respectful of the environment and of animal welfare, including extension of the use of organic production methods and the use of biotechnologies, inter alia through the implementation of best practices in those fields;
Yeah, I made it easy for you. Oh, c'mon, you can't think this whole mess was concocted just to plunder an economy that's soon to be half the size of the state of Indiana. Sure, a long term, low level war in eastern Ukraine is a bonanza for the military contractors' bottom lines on sales not just to the combatants but also the rest of the west who need to prepare for the sure to be coming Russian invasion, but it sure is hell isn't worth risking a nuclear confrontation. The wealth of Ukraine is in that rich black soil ideal for growing grains which has made it the world's third-largest exporter of cotton and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat, and according to a 2013 USDA forecast it is forecast to jump to the second biggest exporter in the world after the US having shipped over 30 million tonnes of grain out of the country last year.

Still, you might ask what's so nefarious about the word 'biotechnologies', after all, Ukraine, as the rest of the Europe, prohibits genetically modified crops. Selling the lie that GMO is the only answer to food security to a Rada full of parliamentarians inclined to listen to corporate interests shouldn't prove any more difficult than it was to convince them to open up selling land to foreign agribusinesses. Yes, that's right, as part of previous structural adjustment programs agreed to in exchange for debt, since 2002 over 1.6 million hectares of land have been snatched up by multinational companies since 2002. This includes over 405,000 hectares to a company listed in Luxembourg, 444,800 hectares to Cyprus-registered investors, 120,000 hectares to a French corporation, and 250,000 hectares to a Russian company. A now disputed deal brokered between China and Yanukovych prior to the political crisis granted Beijing control over some three million hectares of prime farmland in the east, an area about the size of Belgium or about five percent of Ukraine’s arable land. Something tells me something will overturn the deal and they'll be a willing American buyer waiting in the wings. I wonder who would be interested?

Though Monsanto's $140 million Ukrainian investment in 2013 was ostensibly for conventional seeds only, later that year six large Ukrainian agriculture associations happened to be pushing draft amendments for "creating, testing, transportation and use of GMOs" and the president of the Ukrainian Grain Association, Volodymyr Klymenko stated that "[w]e...have signed two letters to change the law on biosecurity, in which we proposed the legalization of the use of GM seeds". Strangely, both amendments mirrored the wording in the EU Association Agreement. Still not convinced a change is coming? Well, take a gander at this recent investor report regarding our old friend Monsanto which includes "The IMF and World Bank included a clause in their loan package to Ukraine to force the country to use GMOs as part of its loan package" as part of its recommendation to be long in Monsanto stocks. Oh, and I suppose that it was just a coincidence that Ukraine's US ambassador Olexander Motysk met with Brett D. Beggemann, Monsanto's President and COO on March 4th.
"There are only two peoples now. Russia is still barbarous, but it is great. The other young nation is America. The future is there between these two great worlds. Someday they will collide, and then we will see struggles of which the past can give no idea."
- Alexis de Tocqueville
While the neocons' rockets, missiles and bombs get all the headlines, it's the tender ministrations of the neoliberals that deserve the regime change accolades and therefore blame for the deformed offspring of the confluence of the two in Ukraine. Warmongers from Australia to Canada have taken the opportunity to portray themselves as tough guys, witness Prime Ministers Abbott and Harper's shirtfronting and confronting antics at last November's APEC meeting. In another reality they'd be called Abbott and Costello, playing both the court jesters and jousters to divert the public's attention from the goings on behind the curtain. The weapon of choice in this war is economic as round after round of sanctions against Russia prove. Yet, even here the true intent is murky as they serve the dual purpose of strangling both the Russian and European economies. For these latter 28 states, faced with the cost of breaking ties with an important trading partner, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) suddenly looks more appealing despite its decidedly anti-democratic nature. Meanwhile, the Russians have redoubled their push to implement and expand the Eurasian Economic Union in places like Egypt and even India.

So while the western and Russian propaganda machines have been working overtime to produce visceral fear to shut down our critical thinking, ironically usually involving casting the other as modern day Nazis. Putin's Crimea gambit to protect ethnic Russians is compared to that of Hitler's justification for annexing the Sudentland while the New York Times hides the fact that a few Ukrainian battalions, er, actually are on a crusade against what they see as the Semite-led Untermenschen. Yeah, that's right, I did it, I compared apples to oranges, but unless enough people wake up to the reality of what's happening 1,500 km to my east, the neoliberals could accidentally lead the neocons into a war that I'll have to take part in. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail to save my tail, either by imagining a Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse or remembering how many times we've been hoodwinked into war, but what of the Ukrainians caught in a geoeconopolitical tug of war? Strangely, banging the war drum so fervently last week, this time for war on Iran, the neocons themselves may have offered a ray of hope for Ukraine as they reminded the world that no deal is ever etched in stone.

Friday, March 6, 2015

It's The Color You Want It To Be

Somewhat inexplicably, last week my Facebook wall, along with much of the western press, was hijacked by a dress. Seems no one could agree what color it was; some saw white and gold while others adamantly insisted it was blue and black. Now, I haven't clicked on a single headline nor have I expanded any of the pictures, yet I somehow know that there's a controversy without knowing, let alone understanding, the details. I'm sure a quick search would turn up a plethora of divergent rationales and explanations by commentators, scientists, fashionistas and probably even politicians. This got me thinking about the more general state of affairs in today's world as it seems a perfect illustration of the lack of agreement there seems to be about anything.

The zeitgeist seems to be to trust no one, except of course the source you trust. This seems reasonable given the state of the world and the way our supposed leaders have been acting. Perpetual economic, environmental and social crises, a permanent state of war, and a drastic reduction in our civil liberties, democratic rights and future prospects have left many, um, shall we say, sceptical about the motives of those in positions of power and influence. Who can we trust in a world where everything is done out of a desire for self-agrandizement, as a result of ignorance, or, more often that not, plain old-fashioned greed? In short, this is thanks to the present neoliberal form of capitalism which creates perverse incentives that poison everything, and yes, I mean everything, from your drinking water to humanity's faith in progress.

Sure, politicians have always lied, but never before has it been so blatant. Ditto bankers and their ilk, but, seriously, there's no market they haven't rigged nor do they feel any scruples helping anyone who can pay to evade taxes or launder loot. Our athletic heroes turn out to be frauds or wife beaters and now we can't even trust little league games. Beloved entertainers turn out to be sexual predators or worse. The media is ever more transparently biased, little more than cheerleaders for those who pay the bills and grant the interviews and sometimes they just make shit up. We won't even get into religious leaders, but things have become just as bad for the modern world's clergy: scientists. Just as we'd once evoke a god to claim the moral high ground, the tendency today is to point to our preferred peer-reviewed study to prove our point. Yet, scientists are not immune to the disease. While science may be neutral in itself and has given us much that is good it can also be twisted and forged into a weapon to enforce orthodoxy and serve the interests of the wicked.

Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people             - (possibly, depending on who you ask) Henry Kissinger
Sometimes it's blatant but the more dangerous variety comes in a more subtle shade. The latest Et-tu? moment, courtesy of National Geographic magazine, was of this latter treacherous variety. Millions have flipped through its pages for stunning photos and in-depth coverage of issues concerning our world and many have developed a fond attachment bordering on hoarding as they collect issues spanning decades, becoming a part of their fuzzy, feel good childhood memories. So when a venerated institution asks why so many people doubt science by conflating the evils of genetically modified foods with denying climate change, evolution, the moon landing and asserting a link between vaccines and autisms, it is unthinkingly accepted by a huge swath of folks. Here's the offending cover:

What at first glance may seem innocuous is in fact a clear attempt to wield the weapon of scientific knowledge to advance an agenda. First and foremost, what is that word evil even doing there? Shouldn't it be about safety? Even substituting objective for subjective language leaves the readers' brains grappling to compare four near-incontrovertibly proven issues with a fifth for which there's a near 50/50 split in opinion. What's up with that? Well, to nose out a whiff of the current system's poisonous incentives, all one needs to do is notice that most of the studies demonstrating GMO safety have been financed and conducted by biotechnology companies responsible for commercializing the very GM plants they're studying. Gadzooks! Maybe the National Geographic article was really planted as a lesson on why so many people don't trust science. It's not science per se they don't trust, it's industry, corporate-sponsored science they don't trust, whether it's pharmaceutical companies paying for vaccine studies or oil companies financing research to sow the seeds of confusion about climate change.

The article itself really isn't too bad, focusing as it does on confirmation bias while barely touching upon GMOs except for one throw away paragraph. Of course even there, Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach proudly unfurls his freak flag by mendaciously claiming that 'experts' have assured us GMOs are safe while conjuring an image of tinfoil hat wearers when discussing those who question the far from decided science. Worse, it's not even the safety of the plants themselves that concerns the most; it's the fact that so much of the modification goes into increasing pesticide/herbicide resistance, thereby allowing for increases in the amount of products such as Round-up used in farming. What is a safe amount? We don't know, or, well, the only safe threshold we or the FDA know is what Monsanto et al tell them. GMOs are a mass experiment being conducted on the public at large with no consent and no controls beyond what the corporate paymasters decide.

Even if we were to dismiss concerns about the products themselves, once again so-called progress is nothing but a neoliberal ploy to externalize the economic and environmental costs onto the rest of us by the Monsantos, Syngentas and Dows of the world. No, we need not worry that eating GM food will turn us into three-eyed fish, it's the costs that comes with handing over our food security to profit-seeking corporate control. The chemical producers' oligopoly on patented seeds threatens the entire agricultural industry while the diminished genetic diversity such seeds engender imperils our food supply by making it less robust against some unknown future blight, fungus, insect or plague which may evolve to be particularly good at infecting the crop grown from the seed that 90% of farmers use.

Round-up ready crops actually produce Round-up resistant super weeds and bugs meaning more and stronger herbicides will perpetually be needed to attain the same effectevess as before. There are also poorly understood unintended consequences such as these chemicals inadvertently sterilizing the soil of necessary funguses and worms that plants needs to grow which may result in a drop in productivity. Glyphosate has wiped out the vast majority of milkweed plants, the food source for migrating monarch butterflies, both beautiful and useful as pollinators. Speaking of which, what role does it have in the colony collapse disorder killing off our bees, responsible for 80% of the world's pollination. Oh, and that growing deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico, yeah, a result of run-off of fertilizer and all that pesticide.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair
So, when we look to slap the evil label somewhere on this mess, would you put it on the forces doing all this damage while litigating small farmers out of business for patent infringement caused by a breeze, or those who question the sanity of such a system? Seems National Geographic would like society to put tinfoil hats on the latter in the same way they do on those who would have us believe Jesus rode a dinosaur or throw snowballs in Congress to disprove climate change. Clearly, we're expected to ignore the brazenly obvious conflicts of interest that arise from the revolving door between regulator and regulated. Otherwise one might question whether it's science or the promise of a cushy position in the future that determines policies on safety regarding food, drugs, fracking or banking.

Forget that what was once deemed safe has often turned out to be dangerous or you know, deadly. Don't question industry written provisions slipped into seemingly innocuous spending bills laws that bar federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of GMO seeds, regardless of any health issues that may arise in the future. Ignore the fact that cartoon babies and teachers can get scientific papers published, easily done I suppose when papers that largely consist of the words "Get me off your fucking mailing list" repeated 863 times have been accepted by a journal that claims to be peer reviewed. Of course, it's no sweat to shrug that off considering the publishing peer review scam plaguing scientific journals involving fake reviews and even authors reviewing their own papers. Gaming the system has become a business with outfits charging a fee to arrange authorship in peer-reviewed outlets. Uncomfortable questions would inevitably lead to the uncomfortable answer that the neoliberal economic model has poisoned both academia and science. Who would have guessed that pressuring professors and scientists to publish would have such an effect?

Fortunately there's a couple of solutions on the horizon to deal with the problem of competing points of view. The US House of Representatives will most likely soon pass the Secret Science Reform Act and the Science Advisory Board Reform Act which would require the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to only consider publicly available data when making policy recommendations. Yes, the US Congress is actually attempting to make it nearly impossible for real scientists, as opposed to paid Energy Industry shills posing as scientists, to testify before their committees! For the rest of us mortals, Google is working on a way to change their search ranking from incoming-link based to groupthink based. Yes, to ease our cognitive burden, Google will tap into their 'Knowledge Vault' to determine how many false facts sites contain and bump up those they consider trustworthy. What better way to ensure we don't have to endure the unpleasantness of being exposed to contradictory views.

Seeing as simply questioning GMOs is dabbling in conspiracy theory, why not go a step further? I'd be willing to wager that we'll be seeing more articles like the Nat Geo story or the New Yorker hit piece about anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva in the near future. Despite producing 1.5 times enough food to feed the population, scarcity is all about inequality and the resultant maldistribution, I'll guarantee we'll be seeing more ginned up scare stories of the coming famine and the need for GM food to feed the world. See, the US Congress should soon be introducing a bill to grant fast track authority to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TPP). Approval would neuter any debate or amendments to the agreement, the biggest free trade agreement in history involving countries stretching from Chile to Japan, representing 792 million people and about 40% of the world economy. Knowledge engenders debate, while surreptitiousness sanctions silence.

If you haven't heard of it, that's the way they, along with the corporate world, want it to be. All we know comes courtesy of Wikileaks as the deal has been negotiated entirely in back rooms, but what we do know ain't pretty (really, look up investor-state dispute settlement wording and tell me we don't live in a corporatocracy). As far as GMOs are concerned, the deal would ban GMO labelling, an unsurprising gift to the industry considering that the chief US negotiator on agriculture just happens to be Islam Siddique, a former lobbyist for ... Monsanto. You might have guessed had you read the Wikileaks cables which revealed that the US State Department acts as Monsanto's foreign marketing arm. Let's not even talk about how the World Bank and IMF recently forced Ukraine to agree to open their farming system to GMOs, that's a topic for another day.

Turning this corporate/government axis into three-headed Cerebrus is Bill Gates. Yes, although his billions have helped rehabilitate his image, transforming the former monopolist into a philanthropist, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation turns out to be every bit as evil as Microsoft. It makes sense when we consider Gates billions weren't earned through technology so much as his skill in developing the software EULA, or end-user license agreement. Not only are they at the forefront of the neoliberal assault on education, they've also jumped into the GMO debate with both feet and a stack of cash. In addition to (not so) quietly snapping up over half a million Monsanto shares, they also awarded a grant to Cornell University to "depolarize" the debate over GM foods. Despite their efforts, 'polarization' can be found by reading an open letter plea from the Alliance For Food Sovereignty in Africa to the foundation to stop funding the so-called GM 'super banana'. Having seen what the GMO industry did to India, Africa is begging for mercy knowing that it may not be possible to endlessly 'patch' the genetic 'bugs' that are revealed after the product is rushed to market without the proper testing.

It somehow seems fitting to wrap up this rant on the oft-times richest man in the world. After all, he earned his billions on the back of the present perverse neoliberal capitalist model that rewards mediocrity and pretend progress over human well-being. Not only does it externalize costs but it somehow does the same for blame. We can't hold corporations culpable for their destruction when they're simply doing what they are legally mandated to do: increase shareholder value. Neither can we condemn Joel Achenbach for writing such a piece as a person who wants to continue working for a mainstream media company (or think tank, university, government...) must toe the line in order to put food on the family's plate. However, we must be vigilant and call out those who would conflate such issues. Climate change exists. Evolution is happening. The moon landing was real. Vaccinations don't cause autism. Genetically modified foods aren't evil and in fact may have a role in putting food on all our plates in the coming climate change dystopia, but the corporate agenda and neoliberal system is most definitely evil.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Memory Hole Devouring Greece

A suffocating debt load, unable to raise money in the market and an economy in a death spiral on the verge of collapse. Sure, an apt description of the situation in Greece but one that would also apply to West Germany in 1953. February 27th of that year saw the signing of the London Agreement on German External Debts which forgave half of the German foreign debt and stretched the repayment of the remaining IOUs over 30 years. What's more, the agreement gave creditor nations an incentive to import German goods by stipulating that repayments were only due while West Germany ran a trade surplus and were limited to 3% of export earnings.

Fast forward almost 62 years and we found the new Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras, elected on an anti-austerity platform by the Greek people January 15th, going hat in hand seeking a similar reprieve from her creditors. After five years of Troika (the ECB, IMF and European Commission) mandated austerity imposed in exchange for bailouts, the Greek economy is in ruins. Dictated spending cuts have led a plummeting economy, skyrocketing unemployment, services being cut and have ultimately cost lives. GDP has contracted 25% and unemployment is currently over 25% with youth unemployment above 50%. Experts have opined that is no coincidence that the cuts to health care, emergency services and benefits have accompanied a 200% increase in HIV infection rates, a 60% suicide rise and a plethora of other social ills.

Rarely mentioned in the press, much of Greece's pre-crisis debt was fraudulently obtained in order to qualify the country for the euro. Adding insult to injury, despite it being clear that the country was bankrupt in 2010, it was forced to add to the outstanding debt by accepting bailout money. Worse, this money didn't go to the people; instead it went directly to private Swiss, French and German banks thus effectively transferring the credit risk onto the public shoulders of the ECB and IMF. Many argue against debt forgiveness as it increases moral hazard, when risk is undertaken knowing that others will incur the costs, forgetting that private lenders undertook the original risk of lending without paying any price.

So the table was set for a showdown between unelected technocrats and the democratic will of the people. The new government had about a month to figure out how to avoid insolvency which would have occurred the day after the aforementioned 62nd anniversary while renegotiating a deal its people had repudiated. It was apropos that the protagonists in this confrontation were character yanked from the stage of a morality play as the two sides in the negotiations both attempted to claim the moral high ground; the debtor pleading for mercy and the lender stressing the dangers of moral hazard. Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, the leather clad Marxist economist arriving astride his motorbike versus Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, a conservative member of a conservative party whose sartorial selection was surely less S&M and more M&S.

Just as the doctor's whites convince the patient to trust him, the suits have

persuaded us that if the patient only took its austerity medicine they would be sure to recover. Yet, a quick glance tells us that no European country has done more to 'reform' its economy than Greece. It is in fact the medicine that is killing the patient. The quackery of men such as Schäuble would be more apparent if we were told of their past misdeeds. See, despite his adamant denials at the time, Schäuble, as second in command to Helmut Kohl in the 90's illegally accepted millions of marks of illegal contributions from arms dealers. As public prosecutors in Germany are not independent, but take orders from the government, of course all charges against Schäuble were dropped.

Public perception you see is far more important than the particulars. Never mind that the Greeks themselves never saw a penny of the debt they are now paying off as every cent went to pay back the banks who originally took on too much risk; the media's role is to perpetuate the myth of thrifty Germans supporting reckless Greeks. The public, already inured to the devious methods used to hoist private debt onto public shoulders, from government guarantees of bank debt in Ireland to the outright bank bailouts in the US and elsewhere, were primed to perceive the Greeks as undeserving. Instead of placing the blame on the very institutions responsible for the mess, thanks to lazy media coverage most point the finger at the shiftless Greek people. It would do us good to realize that according to the OECD, the average employed Greek works more hours than anywhere else in Europe, a measure which places Germans second from the bottom.

One couldn't help but be constantly reminded of who the Greeks owe in the past month's coverage. An example from the BBC:

Graphic showing how much Greece owes to whom

Strangely, um, not, no one seems to mention that little 1% number next to foreign banks as the reason it is so small (and those Eurozone, IMF and ECB) numbers are so big has gone down the memory hole. Of the €226.7 billion disbursed to Greece, only 27 billion has made its way into Greece with the rest going into the pockets of the banks, mostly French, Swiss and German. In this way, a bank problem was transformed into a public problem making the Greeks an easy target for demagoguery.

Ah, but still, you say, where did all this debt come from? Those lazy ouzo drinking, early retiring slackers were able to high on the hog thanks to the original loans. Oh contraire, oh contraire. Not that the public sector has ever been particularly thrifty, but much of the fault can, as usual be laid at the feet of the banks who helped swap, sweep and mortgage Greece into the euro in the first place.

Once in the club, the Greeks behaved like any other country but forgot they no longer controlled the levers of monetary policy having forfeited them to Brussels and Frankfurt helping make the Germans the unquestioned winners of the eurozone. Don't just take my word for the benefits Germany reaped being able to sell Mercedes Benzes on cheap credit from Lisbon to Athens, take a look at this. The reason Germany has become number two only to China in trade surplus is the straightjacket called the euro. While its record €217 billion surplus is perceived as growth driver, it is in fact an anchor, dragging down the rest of Europe.

One needn't be David Ricardo to figure out that comparative not absolute advantage is the basis for optimal trade policies and the running of a surplus entails financing someone else's deficit, just ask China and the US. German savings needed to go somewhere and they chose to invest in paper IOUs that might never be repaid. Monetary policy would normally correct the imbalance, but the euro has taken away this tool from national central banks in the eurozone. Instead, austerity led to a collapse in domestic (European) demand, necessitating devaluing the currency (for example through printing money, last months quantitative easing) which in turn forces the world to borrow more in an endless cycle.

It may seem facile, but it's hard not to compare the situation to the 3 1/2 year German occupation of Greece in WWII. Not only did the host have the bear the cost of occupation but the Third Reich forced the Greek National Bank to lend Hitler's Germany 476 million reichsmarks interest-free. All told, it's estimated that German occupation cost the Greeks €162 billion. While the hindsight afforded by the repercussions of forcing Germany to pay war debt following WWI makes it difficult to argue that it wasn't a good idea to forgive its debt following WWII, it's equally difficult to be blind to the hypocrisy of the German position today.

Adding insult to injury, the Germans smugly point to their success of having achieved their first balanced budget last year since 1969 while not only ignoring the direct contribution of Greeks buying BMWs but the indirect help as well. One need look no further than the cost of defence. Again, it's hard to argue in favor of, um, you know, Germany increasing military spending, but the fact is they have been able to get away with only spending 1.4% of their budget on defence (versus NATO's suggested 2%) in part because of the safety provided by Greece picking up the slack by spending 4.3% to protect the southern flank of the continent. Oh, and one should also keep in mind that though they may not buy many tanks, as evidenced by their woeful state of military preparedness, the Germans certainly do benefit by producing them; Germany is the third largest military exporter in the world. Early in the austerity shell game, Greece had to cut public spending, but they were not allowed to cancel tank deliveries from Germany.

The only way to find any kind of silver lining to last week's Greek capitulation to the Troika is to imagine that at least a portion of the public has woken up to the contradiction that is the European Union. Ostensibly a vehicle to promote cohesion, democracy and peace, it has morphed into an untenable union which ignores democratic values thus enabling warfare of a modern variety. The two key pieces of the platform that got Syriza elected, debt renegotiation and remaining in the eurozone, proved mutually exclusive. Sadly, the more likely outcome of the Greek concessions will be the empowerment of parties on the other end of the spectrum from Syriza, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

XLIX - Completing the Process

The NFL's money men are already drooling over the prospect of next year's game. Not only will dropping the Roman numeral L in favor of the Arabic number 50 have been a boon to the marketing campaign revolving around gold (golden anniversary played in the Golden State at the home of the gold mining 49ers) and the power of technology to enhance, nay, perfect the football experience, but the game will culminate in the decisive moment being determined by a referee standing in the endzone staring intently onto a Microsoft Surface handed to him along with Bose headphones as Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be sure to remind viewers. Played in the hyper-connected Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, closer to the Google, Facebook and Apple headquarters than any actual San Franciscan, over 100 million people will bear witness to the final triumph of technology over nature, bits and glitz over blood and guts. So lost in concern over whether the receiver completed the process, the process will be complete, and never again will we be lost in the moment.

Fear not football fans, we've got at least one last hoorah before they take the game completely away from us: the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. A dream match-up in itself with the top seeded team from each conference facing off in the desert. Of course, this doesn't guarantee an epic contest as proven last year as the Seahawks demolished their fellow #1 Broncos 43-8, but the classic potential is there. (In fact, doing a bit of quick math puts paid to the idea that having #1 seeds promises a good game as the average score in the 10 games is 36-14, a cumulative 357-142 score). At least equally convincing in favor of a classic confrontation, the teams have split their sixteen meetings with the last game in 2012 finishing 24-23 Seahawks.

First Quarter - Pumping up the Pressure

As is always the case, story lines abound. Of course Deflategate has turned the game of inches into pounds per square inch and is threatening to further tarnish Pats coach Bill Belichik reputation. You may remember the last time they won the big one spawned another 'gate' scandal, Spygate in '07. Together with QB Tom Brady, they've won three Super Bowls, with Brady winning them in his first four years, but they've also suffered two Super Bowl defeats, the last coming in Sunday's venue, the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Giants spoiled the Patriots bid for a perfect season in 2008. Another loss will see Brady join John Elway, Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton as three-time losing QBs while a win will put the Belichik-Brady tandem on par with Joe Montana-Bill Walsh and Terry Bradshaw-Chuck Noll.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the last man to coach the Pats before Bill; he was fired in '99. Now, he looks to lead his team to the first back-to-back Super Bowls since, um, the Pats over a decade ago. His team's calling card might be defence, but it's QB Russell Wilson who has brought them to the playoffs all three of his seasons and now looks to follow Brady in winning two Super Bowls in his first three years. Yeah, the defence is great and is looking to earn the all-time great stamp, one that may be deserved if they beat Manning and Brady in consecutive years. Inarguably, the two best corners will be taking the field as Darrelle Revis has resurrected Revis Island since coming to New England and the younger, brasher Richard Sherman takes the field for Seattle with all eyes on his elbow. Maybe he'll be wearing his "U MAD BRO?" T-shirt?

Regardless, the public's appetite for scandal has made Deflategate the game's headline, and, in fact, the nation's leading news story: the PTB's (powers that be) perfect weapon of mass distraction. It's perfect fodder to swipe those other, you know, less important problems such as domestic abuse and the concussion crisis under the rug. It's easier to take a side on cheating than to examine the morality of supporting a sport that drives still young men to kill themselves or beat their loved ones. Better to have our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls cluttered by astrophysicists weighing in about football air inflation temperature than the planet setting a new yearly global record high temperature. Similarly, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch is being portrayed on our screens as a "disrespectful, unprofessional dick" or a "pampered brat" after showing up to media day under threat of a $500,000 fine only to repeat 25 times "I'm here so I won't get fined." Easier to swallow that pill than to see his refusal to play Uncle Tom as a work to rule campaign with links to the steady erosion of our freedoms, growing inequality and the struggle highlighted last summer in Ferguson, Missouri. Marshawn's been warned not to grab his crotch so that the only ball's that will be squeezed will be the Patriots pigskins

TV Timeout - Trials and Tribulations

The NFL has it's stage set and definitely doesn't want to see any Sherman-esque taunting or Lynch-ian ball grabbing on the field tainting the league's carefully crafted image. Er, yeah, about that, does anybody even remember all the way back to say, September? No? Don't worry, you're not alone, seems nobody can much remember anything any more. Well, to bring you up to speed, there was a moment when much of America was starting to question their support of America's favorite sport. It had become impossible to deny the link between the battered brains of ex-NFL suicide victims and the day-to-day pounding meted out on their grey matter on the field. The acronym CTE was making its way into public consciousness as the concussion crisis was  the first waves of unease caused by supporting a sport that ultimately winds up destroying the lives of many people if not killing them.

Awareness that teams extort money from local governments to build stadiums and be given tax breaks was bubbling to the surface. Uncomfortable questions were being asked about how the league's exploitation of cancer awareness seemed to put players and merchandisers' revenues in the pink but wasn't doing much for the cause. Some wondered why the NFL doesn't pays any of their $10 billion to anyone besides themselves as not a penny reaches Uncle Sam. Another Sam, Michael didn't make the Rams, leaving the league without any openly gay player for another year. Then a grainy security tape showed up on a gossip website showing Ravens star running back Ray Rice dragging a woman out of a casino elevator almost causing the whole thing to come crashing down.

When the team, league and the commissioner did what they have always done, levy meaningless fines and insufficient suspensions, they were caught off guard by the public's reaction. What could the people want? Not only had they suspended him for two games but the victim had practically placed the blame on herself! Public rage was fuelled by the release of a second, more damning tape together with news and pictures of the injuries inflicted on his son by Viking star Adrian Peterson combined with the league's meagre response and seemingly indifferent attitude. Enter the PR men and the usual distraction circus of press conferences, releases and appearances. Although the league finally threw both players out of the league (albeit temporarily), in order to assuage public misgivings about the handling of the situation, the public still needed more to determine who knew what and when. So, the NFL employed what has become the western world's final arbitrer of right and wrong: the independent inquiry.

Like a magical wand, these investigations make uncomfortable problems disappear. They go by different names, enquiries, commissions or probes, but whether we're troubled by assassinating, bombing, torturing, lying, or blowing up the world economy, the formula is always the same. First an 'independent' truth seeker with gravitas is named, in this case it was ex-FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, not only a partner in the law firm which helped negotiate the NFL's Sunday Ticket package but who also represented the Washington football team's owner Dan Snyder. Next, promise access to all pertinent records and employees knowing full well that any paper trail has been wiped clean and loose-lips silenced. Finally, the case is closed with the release of a report ripe with reproval and recommendations but devoid of damning evidence, the whole thing designed to make the headlines without altering the baselines. The veneer of justice ensures nothing needs to change.

Our instant gratification, hyper connected environment, filled with facts, pseudo facts, misinformation, and rumour all posing as information has led to a growing disconnect between reality and perception and seems to be hurtling to the point of no return. It's gotten to where the simplest conversation has turned into a mine field strewn with ignorance, disinformation and falsehoods threatening to explode at every step. The irony is that what was supposed to put the sum of all human knowledge within our grasp, ie. technology and the internet, has in fact been the status quo's Trojan Horse.

Instead of smuggling in Greek soldiers, the underbelly of the shiny promise of knowledge and empowerment hid the noose of expectation to be at the beck and call of your family, friends, lovers, clients and boss 24/7, and the thief of reflection time, robbing us of space for deeper, more critical thinking. Although we think we're getting a lot done by doing several things at once, in the end it makes us demonstrably less efficient and more ignorant while we are increasingly convinced of the opposite. No wonder war criminals avoid prosecution and are awarded humanitarian awards, financial fraudsters skip jail and proceed directly to go and corporate criminals are given incentives to further desecrate the planet. If the casual fan's media lens wasn't so clouded by the hype machine, they may have even taken note that Aaron Hernandez murder trial finally got under way during the bye week. Rinse and repeat.

Second Quarter - Visor v. Gronk

For all intents and purposes Seattle shouldn't even be here, I mean, ESPN’s win probability bot gave the Seahawks a 3.9 percent chance of winning after trailing the Packers 19-7 with 5:04 left in the conference championship. Meanwhile, there was never a moments doubt the Patriots were beating the Colts. Now, how do they stack up against each other? At QB, Tom Brady, in the denouement of his career which has seen more playoff wins than 21 NFL teams, versus Russell Wilson, still in his opening act, looking to hit pay day after his rookie contract expires, doesn't get any better. Yet, it seems to me that the LOB (Seahawks defensive backs, the Legion of Boom) should be able to dominate the smallish Patriots wide receivers while the Patriots secondary features perhaps the best man coverage in football. Having CBs Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman for the Pats and Hawks lined up against the likes of WRs Doug Baldwin and Brandon LaFell respectively unfair at best and a waste of talent at worst.

The Patriots also feature two undersized wideouts in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The former, a converted college QB has been a prolific producer for the past couple of years and finally threw his first TD pass against the Ravens in the divisional game. The latter was seemingly forgotten for over a year after coming over from the Rams but recently rediscovered and making key contributions. The key passing match-up will be the Visor v. Gronk, Seahawk SS Kam Chancellor against Patriot TE Rob Gronkowski. Kam's hit on Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas early in last year game set the tone while Gronk has the same game changing ability, Gronk catch, Gronk smash. Gronk score; whoever comes out on top in this match up may lead his team to victory.

On paper, the ground game seems to favor Seattle as Marshawn Lynch has been in Beast Mode the past few months, but Belichik has gotten a lot of miles out of the three-headed attack of LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.  Bill picked up Blount off the Steelers trash heap (conspiratorially or not) and has ridden him much as he did last year after plucking him from the Bucs. The Seahawks are dangerously thin at defensive tackle leaving the middle of their line susceptible to a steady battering of Blount, who suddenly seemed to find lateral jump two weeks ago. Conversely, the Patriots defense might be disciplined enough to, if not stop, at least contain Wilson's read option and tackle Lynch after first contact. Unless Jermaine Kearse or Ricardo Lockette can find a way to beat Pat's corners Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, it could be a long day for the Seattle offense.

Half Time - "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral."

Katy, Emily, Zooey and Siwan. Mix and match!

Yeah, Katy Perry. Hooray tits. Really? Two years running the NFL has misjudged the world when it comes to half time entertainment and been 'forced' to add a second headliner act. What's up with that exactly? Are they so out of touch they don't realize that Bruno Mars isn't exactly on the play list of most NFL fans? Bouncing boobs are great when they're on cheerleaders but don't really cut it when it comes to the biggest half hour in sports entertainment. Seriously. Will someone just let me know what's going on?

Maybe I'll just tell you what I think. Ironically, while opening up the world to anyone, any time, any where to both potential stardom and being exposed to the next big thing, technology has in fact narrowed our range of choices and limited the prospects of superstar wannabees. Sure, anyone can upload their version of Rolling in the Deep and we can listen to almost anything ever recorded on demand, but the the very same technology is being used to produce and feed us an endless loop of the same rhythm as our brains are wired to crave the melodies we already know.

Gangham Style might have over a billion Youtube views but does anyone believe it has anything on Like a Rolling Stone, or anything by the Beatles, or I don't know, even Bananarama? No longer is there a global consensus about what constitutes a superstar. As social media has allowed us to share more but really caused us to shut ourselves off from any opposing world view and cable TV has given us a bigger window on the world that really only feeds us sound bites empty of substance, the entertainment industry now measures, tracks, polishes and artificially sweetens everything to our taste by squeezing out every drop of individuality.

There was a decade-ish window that saw the NFL tear through all the acts the world agreed were worthy of Super Bowl half time stardom when we saw the Jacksons, Michael in '93 and Janet's nipple in '04, U2, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Prince, Tom Petty and of course a few mixes featuring the likes of Madonna and climaxing with Beyonce three years ago. It seemed so normal at the time, instead of marching bands or Up With People we'd have acts that everyone agreed were, if not cool, at least universal. Well, I'll tell you what, the wonders of Youtube and Facebook have guaranteed that we'll never have such a time of agreement again and no it's not good, bad or neutral but it is pretty bland.

Third Quarter - Hail Mary

Imagine for a second describing a defenseless receiver personal foul to a fan in the 70s. "Wait. So, you're telling me that the defensive player can't hit the receiver until he has 'clearly become a runner'? No wonder receivers run recklessly over the middle, fearless where they once were fearful and quarterbacks regularly throw for 5,000 yards today." When Dan Marino first did it back in 1984 it was monumental; Drew Brees accomplishing it in 2008 was something; then when three QBs did it following more rule changes to favor the passing game in 2011, 5,000 became the new 4,000. Not satisfied with the myriad of other rules favoring the offense the league decided to make defensive holding and illegal contact 'a point of emphasis' this year. Surprise! Two of top four yardage weeks in league history happened before the end of October. A couple of more flags per game is water off a ducks back as long as it contributes to finally converting the game from one of strategy and determination into one where if I've got a flashier quarterback and bigger, taller receiving corps, I win.

Why not? As passing and scoring has skyrocketed, so have the ratings and revenue, and, as we know by now, the market determines what is right and wrong, right? After the Pats dominated the Colts in '03, the league changed the way they enforced pass interference so Peyton Manning wouldn't look so bad. Hooray, more points. The rule change that allows the offensive team to use their own game balls in 2006 thanks to lobbying by the likes of, um, Tom Brady, was passed unanimously by the rules committee, cuz, you know, what could go wrong? After all, it's a "comforting factor for the quarterback to use his own balls". Meander over here to have a look at the rule changes implemented over the past 35 years to favor the passing game.

Thank dog I didn't watch the Pro Bowl (who actually watches the Pro Bowl?), but reading about the rule changes implemented for the game actually gave me shivers. Highlights: No kickoffs; teams start at the 25 yard line. Two time outs per quarter, although only being able to carry over one into the 2nd or 4th quarter. POSSESSION changes at the end of each quarter along with two minute warnings! Adjustable width uprights for point afters and field goals. Crazy clock management with it stopping on plays gaining less than a yard with under two minutes to play and only 35 second play clocks only being wound after the officials spot the ball. Oh, and of course a trial run of the new instant replay tablet system. Fan response to all of these tweaks will have been surveyed, responses measured and committees formed to decide which ones will leak into the rulebook. The human brain being what it is, a short term pleasure seeking zombie, guarantees the changes selected will be those that give instant jolts but leave the fans starved in the long run.

TV Timeout - An exercise in excess

What Super Bowl post would be complete without a segment devoted to the commercials and consumption statistics swirling around the game. Viewership should bump up against last year's 111.5 million which is why NBC can charge $4.5 million for a 30-second spot. Sounds like much will be of the usual fare, puppies and beer (or both) but will have a burger commercial with a near-naked woman and a lingerie ad with fully padded women. This year will also continue the trend of brands you've never heard of trying to garner some gossip by splashing out with the likes of, Loctite and Mophie, a website builder, super glue and smartphone case respectively. While NBC has the game, the real battle for eyeballs and attention will be online. 5.6 million tweeters will be paying only partial attention to the game while sending 25.3 million tweets. Youtube will livestream its own halftime show plus host Ad Blitz which rang up 379 million views as people voted for their favorite commercial.

325 million gallons of beer will wash down 1.23 billion chicken wings and 11 million pounds of chips often covered by some of the 158 million avocados used to make guacamole contributing to the 2,400 calories consumed by the average viewer (the 2nd most gluttonous day in the US after Thanksgiving). About $3.8 billion will be wagered illegally compared to the $100 million in legal bets. All told, Americans will dish out $14.3 billion on merchandise, apparel and food. Mysteriously, all apparently cause for celebration, as is the fact that ticket prices have unaccountably soared this year, the cheapest seat crossing the $10,000 threshold as of Friday morning and heading straight up. Did you know you could short sell tickets just like stocks? Hooray for the 'free' market!

Of course the glitz and glory cover up even more troubling numbers, from the inside out. XLIX host Glendale, Arizona, the city that was ruined by sports, will spend about $30 million and, as mayor Jerry Weirs predicts, "I totally believe we will lose money on this". The list of demands of the hosts by the NFL reads like those of a visiting monarch. Much like the monarchy, the league imposes a direct opportunity cost, money that could be spent on say, education or infrastructure in exchange for value that can only be imputed. Studies have shown that while fans do bring in revenue there is no way to tell how much or even rule out losses due to football fans crowding out other tourists. Another monarchy similarity, the NFL receives full exemption from city, county and state taxes. The stadium's name, the University of Phoenix is the online for-profit education company sucked $3.7 billion from taxpayers in 2012 alone and has ruined the lives of countless others with its deceptive recruiting techniques selling the dream of a ticket to the top which invariably turns out to be a debt slavery nightmare.

All this in a state where the top 1% captured a higher percentage of income growth between 1979 and 2007 than any other (84.2%). A state where the government is taken to court for short changing the schools while seriously considering cutting the state income tax. In a country that believes in economic recovery heralded by the media that buries the fact that unemployment is only sinking thanks to millions dropping out of the work force and the mini boom of slave wage jobs. A country that has seen the top 1% take more than 100% of the post crisis income growth (thanks to a decline in the income of the 99%). Where the existing inequality was the main driver in most of the causes of said crisis. This in a world where 80 people own more than 3.5 billion and the 1%'s wealth is projected to pass the 99%'s later this year. Yes, it is, has been and will be a Super Bowl for the rich while the majority stand and applaud being trodded upon. That whole dearth of critical thinking thing sure is a good thing for those higher ups, hey?

Fourth Quarter - Up for Grabs

Don't get me wrong. I still love this game and despite the trials and tribulations swirling around the game that occasionally prick my conscience, this season was by all objective measures a classic. Despite the league's best efforts to turn itself into the Arena Football League, teams such as the Cowboys showed that you can win consistently by building an offensive line through the draft and running your workhorse thirty times a game. Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. made perhaps the single most stunning catch in league history against the Cowboys. Just watch it. Again. And again. And yet again.

The Arizona Cardinals soared until injuries clipped their wings. The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs only to go one and out for the fourth consecutive year led by QB Andy Dalton. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers told the Cheesehead nation to "relax" and went on to pile up dazzling stats (8-0 at home; 25 TDs 0 ints, 38-5 overall) while leading his team to the NFC North crown. Now if we can somehow stop those horrible Hans and Franz State Farm commercials. And J.J. Watt did it all. I mean, imagine him on a good team. The Steelers completed their transformation from dependable defensive dynasty to schizophrenic sideshow as they followed up back to back six touchdown performances by QB Ben Roesthlisberger in victories over the Colts and Ravens with a loss the the Jets.

Speaking of the Steelers, their WR Antonio Brown somewhat stealthily became the best wide receiver in a wide receiver league. Sure, teams need a QB to get them the ball, but it seems that this is the era of the dominant WR. Calvin Johnson set the mold for Dez Bryant, AJ Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas to follow. The amazing rookie campaigns OBJ, Panther Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans of the Bucs along with the oft-injured Bill Sammy Watkins promises that Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Jordy Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate will have plenty of company. Heck, even Steve Smith Sr. had a huge impact this year.

Just yesterday it seemed the tight ends were going to take over, but apart from Gronk and maybe Martellus Bennett and Cam Olsen, no tight end had a stellar season. Meanwhile, the legal problems of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson probably put a stake in the heart of the idea of building a team around a running back. With a good enough offensive line, the RB becomes an interchangeable piece allowing teams to draft young legs in the mid to late rounds or pick up a Justin Forsett off another team's trash heap.

Which brings me back after a circuitous journey to the game itself. It's time to make my yearly Super Bowl prediction. Too bad few will get to this point as it has proven to be the most valuable moment of my six Super Bowl posts to date (5-1 straight up and against the spread, see here, here, here, here, here and here. Damn Saints-Colts!). Love him or hate him, Wily Bill, if you're in the former group, Darth Hoodie or Bill Bellicheat for the latter, will figure out a new way to bend the rulebook, hopefully involving Vince Wilfork late in the game to give the Patriots a dramatic, controversial, until it's forgotten three days later, 23-20 win. Oh, yeah, that catch in next year's Super Bowl, completing the process, will look a bit like this.